"So, you must be really ramping up your training now that the Olympics are coming, right? You must be working hard these days?"
Throughout my speed skating career, I was asked this question frequently in the months leading up to an Olympic Games, and I came to expect it every four years.
The first time I heard it, I stared blankly back at the interested individual, blinking slowly, incomprehensibly. Ramping up my training? After a moment or two of peculiar silence, I found my words and replied awkwardly, "Uh, well, we train really hard all the time, actually, so mostly just doing the same as usual." This was met with an equal degree of incomprehension, a shrug and, "Uh, OK, well, good luck!"
I walked away, truly perplexed. How can you conceivably "ramp up" when you’re already pushing the red line. How can you "ramp up" from training as hard as possible all of the time? Of course, I was always happy to answer questions from kind folks who were truly interested in what my life as an athlete was like. Still, it was difficult to convey to people that, for me, sport was a full-time pursuit that extracted every ounce of energy, focus and determination that I could muster on a daily basis.
There seems to be a prevailing assumption out there that, because it’s an Olympic season, it must be time to train hard, or harder. Initially, I was so sincerely stumped by the question because I simply could not imagine training any harder than I already was.
In sport, the key to successful training is to intelligently tread that fine line between pushing to the extreme and knowing when to back off. It was a game we played with as much precision as possible. In theory, the idea is that you reach, and even slightly exceed, your limits, then allow the body to rest, and in doing so, make big gains in strength and aerobic capacity. In practice, this essentially meant that I was exhausted all of the time.
In an Olympic season, the best strategy, for me anyways, was simply to stay the course. Once I had reached the highest level in my sport, further improvements came almost entirely from better technique and mental fortitude under pressure, not training harder. I trained hard, so hard, in the three years leading up to an Olympic season. Ask any sport physiologist and they will tell you that this is when the hard work is done. Olympic-season training is still just as hard, but in some respects it is more about fine tuning, tweaking and maximizing the body’s potential to peak at the right moment. My coach used to call it "sharpening the pencil."
It is tempting, however, in an Olympic year to think that pushing harder will yield greater results. I was often tempted by this myself but was thankfully reigned in gently by my coach, who was much smarter than me. I’ve seen other athletes do it all too often — all of a sudden tacking on extra minutes or hours on the bike, going too hard when it’s meant to be easy, or failing to take the necessary rest to recover. More is better. But I could see fear in their eyes.
The notion that more training will lead to improved performance, when one is already pushing the limits, is a dangerous attitude that can have catastrophic consequences that lead to overtraining and, ultimately, squandered Olympic dreams. I witnessed it often enough that eventually the urge to constantly do more was tempered by experience and confidence that I was truly doing everything right.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. For those young, developing athletes who are still on the steep upswing, whose bodies are still adapting and improving under heavy loads of training, big gains can be made in any season, and if it happens to be an Olympic one, that’s just good timing. But for those already at the top, in my opinion, the key is this: keep getting better, but don’t go harder now just because it’s the fourth year. Be confident that the work is already done and you are ready.
As this Olympic season begins, for the first time ever I actually am ramping things up, as graduate school has required a swift and timely surge to the red line, albeit an academic one this time. Sweeping away the dusty cobwebs of my now ancient chemistry and physics knowledge has been a shock to my cerebral cortex, but thankfully there is little risk that too much studying will hinder my performance.
Kristina Groves is one of Canada's most decorated speed skaters. In her career she won four Olympic medals three world single-distance titles.